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Monday, November 5, 2018

Can religious Jews celebrate Sigd? If not, why not?

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My kids' school did an awesome thing last week.  At least, I think so.  Read on and tell me if you agree.

And before you go on – I just want to add.  This isn’t about politics.  It’s not about liberal / conservative.  It’s not about Orthodox Zionist / Haredi.  It’s just about how we treat one another, and our stories.

Author and scholar Thomas King has said, “The truth about stories is, that’s all we are.”  We are our stories, and our nation is our stories.  And this is about whose stories get heard… and whose don’t.

So here’s what happened:

Last week, my son’s school sent out an invitation via WhatsApp (if you don't live in Israel, you might not be aware of the wonders of WhatsApp -- for those who live here, it's the main way many of us communicate with the world beyond our homes, especially if we have kids in school...) to their annual commemoration of Sigd.

This was the main holiday of the beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia, commemorating their longing to return to Israel as well as their return to Jewish observance after years of persecution, and it was made a national holiday (albeit one with no day off) by the Knesset in 2008.

Here's the actual invitation.  I've redacted the name of the school for privacy.

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Fortunately, they also sent a Hebrew version which I can understand a little better!

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The Hebrew version reads, in part,

Torah Reception Ceremony
in honour of the Sigd festival
We invite you to come at 8:30 for a festive event
in the presence of Kess (Rabbi) Ephraim Lawi
Wear white shirts
Come and rejoice!

Here's what I wrote when I shared this invitation happily on Facebook.

Is YOUR kid's Jewish school celebrating Sigd this week??? If not, why not?

I'm personally so happy and proud because the teacher posted the Amharic version to the WhatsApp group BEFORE the Hebrew version.
I'm not going to pretend it's perfect here. Kids from Ethiopian families have it harder in so many ways. And I believe more routine correspondence needs to go out from the school in Amharic, not just once a year. But it's a start, and a much better place for my kids to grow up as equals among Jews from all kinds of backgrounds...

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And here’s the reaction:

Little did I realize that some of the people in our community were not nearly as happy as I was.

To some extent, as these things do, this blew up.  I don't have permission to use these individuals’ words, but I will try to paraphrase their arguments without ridiculing them:

  • “We” are "acting like" it's a "real" Jewish holiday when Ethiopian Jews were very removed from tradition for too many years for it to be authentic (I’ll come back to all those quotes in a minute – no, they don’t count as ridicule)
  • The origin of Sigd is unclear so it’s not part of the “unbroken chain” that the rest of us follow
  • They should not wear white shirts, as that denotes an "official" Jewish occasion
  • They should not have called the event a "tekes kabbalat hatorah," which I translated above as "Torah Reception Ceremony," because it can also mean "Receiving of the Torah," and therefore it seems to supplant Shavuos / Shavuot, an official Torah festival
  • It's confusing to kids to celebrate one particular group's custom

I want to reiterate that these are not the actual words, so if anything in these words offend you, it might well be my paraphrase.  But let’s take a look at those quotation marks in the first bullet point argument for a second.

  • “We” – one person referred to “our Ethiopian brothers” –assuming families of Ethiopian origin have as much right as Ashkenazim and Mizrachim to determine what’s taught in schools, this isn’t about us “letting” Ethiopians have their holiday so much as it is about parents wanting the curriculum to reflect their own children’s heritage and values, period.  Something probably no Ashkenazi family would argue with, as demonstrated by the vast numbers of Israeli high schoolers who fly to Poland every year with school groups, even though “we” Ashkenazim are a minority here.
  • “Acting like” – some people mentioned that this “pretending” to celebrate Sigd gives it some legitimacy it should not have.  More on this later.
  • “Real” – as if all the rest of us (ugh) pursue only Jewish activities that are wholly legit, and in fact, if we found out that something we were doing was not “real,” of course we’d drop it like a hot potato.

I hope I'm representing these views accurately -- but I still believe these are almost entirely wrong.

Because here’s the thing:

There are so many things that we do as Jews even though we're unclear about their origins, or even when we know that their origins are not part of the "unbroken chain."

Bar Mitzvah is a good example of that (14th century), something that we hold (almost?) sacred which earlier generations never heard of. Yom Haatzmaut (20th century) is another, maybe less commonly accepted.  Kitniyot (13th century), which many Torah-observant Jews (maybe a majority!) frankly consider against the Torah and ridiculous, worthy of mockery.  I observe all of these and more with my family and yet I expect, even demand, respect from klal Yisrael even though my traditions are outside of halacha and not normative.

More examples?  Yarmulkes.  Hair covering for women.  I’m sure there are dozens more.  The origins of all these things are lost in our distant and murky past.  We can argue all we like that we’ve “always” done them, in an unbroken chain since Har Sinai, but it’s not too easy to back up that claim.  Just as beta Israel cannot back up their claim, but that doesn’t render their history any less legitimate.

Notice I’m not talking about halacha, and neither is the school administration.

As far as I know, the boys in the school wore white shirts but didn't say Hallel, for instance, or daven Mussaf.  I believe that would clearly have been the wrong thing.  Those situations are for something very specific that Sigd doesn’t meet.  On Yom Hashoah we don’t add them either. 

(For comparison, they do wear white shirts for Yom Hashoah – just as they do, in this particular school, every single Friday, which isn’t a Jewish holiday last I checked.  It’s just done out of respect.)

I think it’s actually very fitting to celebrate a civic / national holiday (Sigd was recognized as a national holiday by the Knesset in 2008) in a white shirt.  To celebrate by learning Torah from a respected elder who has helped lead his people back to Yiddishkeit after such a long celebration?  Absolutely nothing in there to get our stomachs knotted up over.  Unless you’re worried because that elder happens to have dark skin?

Let’s not go there.

Every year, we ask Ethiopian Jews here to stand and be quiet for a minute while we remember European and other Jews who died during the Shoah.  Why can't our kids put on a white shirt and shut up for fifteen minutes or whatever while the Kess talks about their lives and their community?

(Whether or not the boys at my son’s school actually did shut up, which of course they didn't!)

I see accepting one another, listening to each other’s stories, as a huge part of life in a multicultural Israel.

In the heat of the debate, someone suggested, maybe facetiously, that it would be a good idea to invite the Yemenites in to talk about their heritage, and I say go right ahead.  Invite the Moroccans, too.  And the Bene Israel, of which there’s a substantial group in my daughter’s school.  Invite anyone who wants to help preserve the stories and legends from every corner of galut (exile) within a framework of halacha and Jewish tradition.

The Torah is strong and it's what brings us together as we cling to it faithfully.  We have absolutely nothing to lose and there is absolutely no threat in any of this.  Intended or perceived, in my opinion, by most dati le'umi Jews in Israel.

Telling each others’ stories makes us stronger as a people.  Like I said, it’s not about politics or religion… it’s just about sitting down and listening to one another.

I wish you all malkam amet bahal! מלקם עמת בהל!  חג סיגד שמח!


(Sigd photo credit (c) Olevy via Wikimedia)



Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


2 comments:

  1. Well said. it is arrogant and folly to say that only the Torah Judaism that one practices is the singular right way.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much! I really appreciate the support.

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